September 28, 2013

Study: Freeport would pay for school independence

Costs of a separate school district are calculated at $18.9 million, with a funding gap of $4 million to start.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If Freeport schools were to break from the current partnership with Durham and Pownal, the stand-alone district would likely offer fewer academic options and have to close a $4 million budget gap in the first year, according to a study released Friday.

click image to enlarge

In this May 2008 file photo, Pownal students board the bus at Freeport High School to head back to Pownal. If Freeport schools were to break from the current partnership with Durham and Pownal, the stand-alone district would likely offer fewer academic options and have to close a $4 million budget gap in the first year, according to a study released Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Regional School Unit 5 board members and Freeport residents called for the study after a $16.9 million bond to finance an upgrade and expansion of Freeport High School and athletic facilities failed in a vote by residents of all three towns.

Although Freeport voters widely approved the bond, fiscally wary residents of Durham and Pownal propelled the measure to a narrow, 174-vote defeat.

Even if the separation happens, costly renovations at the high school would still be needed, according to the 29-page report by Portland-based Planning Decisions Inc. and John R. Turcotte of Arundel.

"Whether there are 400 or 700 students, the planned renovation is unavoidable," according to the report.

For Freeport residents concerned about taxes, the economic calculus of separation could be troubling.

The study's authors project that an independent Freeport school district would require a budget of $18.9 million.

Currently, the town shoulders $14.9 million of the $24.2 million RSU budget. So if the town decides to go it alone, it would need to close the $4 million funding gap.

The study also includes enrollment projections that could affect decisions in the district.

The controversial high school renovation and expansion plan was driven by what administrators see as current overcrowding of the 540-student school and a desire to accommodate future growth.

The report points to an enrollment peak in about 2021, followed by a longer-term decline.

With fewer students and, therefore, fewer state education dollars in the long term, schools will increasingly compete to attract students and will need to maintain a full complement of academic programs to remain competitive, the report says.

"There is a monumental need for the RSU 5, and particularly Freeport High School, to keep a viable edge in order to compete for students," according to the report. "This one issue alone helps support (an) educational recommendation that RSU 5 remain as a three-town organization."

 

Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

 

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